HELENA — Now that a jury has found a medical marijuana provider guilty of drug and weapons charges, there are just two people left who could challenge a two-year federal investigation into Montana's pot industry by going to trial.
But Chris Williams' conviction Thursday in the first jury trial related to that investigation will likely add pressure to Jason Washington and Lisa Fleming to cut deals with the government like the other 31 people arrested in the probe.
"It doesn't bode well," said Missoula attorney John Smith, who represents a medical marijuana provider who has made a plea deal. "These are people who weren't hiding anything, so when the federal government prosecutes them, it's like shooting fish in a barrel."
The jury's verdict against Williams underlines just how difficult it is to challenge the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Montana's medical marijuana industry, Smith said. Three judges have separately ruled the federal charges filed by prosecutors trump the state's medical marijuana law, leaving the providers unable to offer the defense that they were following Montana law.
Williams, in his trial, had no choice but to concede to jurors that he grew marijuana for his business, Montana Cannabis, in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Williams said he will appeal.
The federal investigation was made public with a March 2011 search of 26 providers' homes, offices and warehouses across Montana, raids that effectively ended what had been a once-booming medical marijuana industry in the state. The arrests and indictments continued for months after the raids as the investigation progressed.
An Associated Press analysis of court documents, U.S. attorney's office data and news accounts found that 34 people from at least 12 different medical marijuana providers across Montana have been indicted as a result of the investigation.
Twenty-three of those cases have resulted in plea agreements with sentences ranging from probation to five years in prison. Eight others have made plea deals and are still awaiting sentencing or a change-of-plea hearing.
That leaves Washington and Fleming, the only two besides Williams not to cut a deal.
Their attorneys did not return calls for comment Friday. U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter also declined comment.
Washington, a former University of Montana quarterback, is accused of conspiracy, drug and firearms charges similar to those Williams faced.
Washington, who played five games at Montana in 2005 before being injured, ran a medical marijuana operation called Big Sky Health with locations in Missoula and Butte. Prosecutors say he ran a drug-trafficking ring that distributed marijuana across western Montana with grow operation of between 1,000 and 1,200 marijuana plants.
Fleming is accused of being in the conspiracy with Williams and five other people, though Fleming's attorney says in court documents that she was Williams' accountant and she was not involved with the medical marijuana business. Washington has pleaded not guilty.
Smith represents Darin Mower, a medical marijuana provider who was arrested with Washington. Smith advised his client to make a deal because of the steep odds against winning at trial.
He said he was doubtful that anybody else will try another district court challenge after the Williams verdict.
"You've still got Washington and Fleming sitting out there, but I bet they don't last long now," he said.